Three Technological Developments for the Maritime Industry to Watch in 2018

Mainbrace | March 2018 (No.1)

Sean T. Pribyl

Emerging technologies continue to permeate various sectors of the maritime industry. As with the advent of steam power, electrical energy, and computerized automation in prior industrial revolutions, the maritime industry is experiencing advances in cyber-physical systems and digitaliza­tion in this “fourth industrial

revolution.” Innovative technologies are transforming indus­tries across the globe, and in 2018, these three technological developments are worth watching: Smart Ships, drones, and innovative collabora­tion. Each will continue to impact maritime operations.

Smart Ships

In 2018, expect the marine sector to continue the trend towards advanced automation in so-called Smart Ships. We pre­viously outlined (see Mainbrace: June 2017, No. 3) the benefits, practical uses, and chal­lenges of Unmanned Surface Vessels (“USV”) or Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (“MASS”) (hereafter “Smart Ships”), and how evolving ship intelligence will impact future vessels, shipyards, vendors, and design and engineering firms.

Importantly, the term “autonomous” is not tantamount to “un-manned,” as there are various levels of autonomy that allow ships to operate with different capa­bilities either remotely or under semi-autonomous or fully autonomous control. Developing Smart Ships are utilizing the full range of these options, though in the near future, expect a human in the loop for most operations. Here are some of the developments to watch:

  • DNV GL’s ReVolt and Kongsberg’s YARA Birkeland, both zero-emission fully electric and autonomous container ships, are being developed for short-sea shipping.
  • Bourbon, Kongsberg, and Automated Ships Ltd. are engaged in the autonomous offshore utility vessel Hrönn project.
  • The PILOT-E project in Norway is developing zero-emis­sion, autonomous, fully electric passenger ferries.
  • Werkina in the Netherlands is proceeding with an elec­trically powered inland container barge capable of unmanned operation.
  • Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics released the Sea Machines 300, the first standardized autonomous vessel control platform for industrial purposes.
  • Google and Rolls-Royce Marine partnered to further ship-based artificial intelligence integration.
  • Kongsberg Maritime recently announced an endeavor to develop remote-operated unmanned fireboats.

Notably, in 2017, the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) began a regulatory scoping exercise on MASS, and the Danish Maritime released its final report on the Analysis of Regulatory Barriers to the Use of Autonomous Ships that helps identify regulatory barriers. Both efforts significantly further Smart Ships development. The U.S. Coast Guard will likely await the results of the IMO scoping exercise before making regulatory changes. Thus, the focus in the United States in 2018 will remain on compliance under current reg­ulations based on vessel type, automation level, and location of operations—combined with dialogue with appropriate Coast Guard offices. These sentiments were echoed by Capt. Benjamin Hawkins, Chief of the Office of Design and Engineering Standards, in his comments at the 97th Annual Transportation Safety Board meeting in January 2018, in which he highlighted the Coast Guard’s discretionary author­ity under existing statutes and regulations.

Inevitably, there will be counter-arguments to Smart Ships develop­ment. For example, cybersecurity is one of many variables to con­sider, although cyber risk exists for all vessels, manned or unmanned, and should not be viewed as unique to Smart Ships. Opponents also suggest Smart Ships may unduly impact mariner jobs, though in some regards, Smart Ships are a job creator in novel industries with new skill sets.

One of the primary industry concerns with the development of Smart Ships has been whether underwriters, insurers, and P&I clubs would offer cover and insurance for commercial Smart Ships. These concerns were somewhat assuaged in 2017 when insurance provider Gard agreed to provide Hull and Machinery and P&I insurance to YARA Birkeland. Leanne O’Loughlin, President/Regional Claims Director for Charles Taylor P&I Management (Americas) Inc., suggests the pri­mary issue for these vessels revolves around compliance with conventions and requirements, although there should be options to find solutions and cover risks. A remaining issue to evaluate then becomes rates. Overall, the industry should expect increased discussion on coverage and contrac­tual issues with Smart Ships this year.


In September 2016, we outlined potential advantages that drones (unmanned aircraft systems/vehicles) may offer the maritime industry (see Mainbrace: September 2016, No. 4). The maritime drones market showed a marked increase in interest in 2017, and here are some of the ways that drones continue to develop to offer cost-reducing, time-saving, and safety-enhancing options in operations historically conducted by humans:

  • DNV GL is using drones to inspect and survey ships and offshore installations.
  • Planck Aerosystems developed fully autonomous drones that can take off from and land on moving vessels to con­duct surveys, assist in search and rescue operations, and map oil spills.
  • The European Maritime Safety Agency issued a €67 million mari­time drone contract to U.K.-based Martek Marine to monitor sulphur emissions from ships and to sur­veille at sea; SSE Plc also awarded Martek Marine a contract to inspect offshore wind turbines.
  • Wilhelmsen Ships Service announced a new drone-based ship delivery service.
  • Natilus is developing an autonomous drone capable of transporting approximately 200,000 pounds of cargo 17 times faster than a ship.
  • Griff Aviation started production of a heavy-lift drone to carry up to 331 lbs., usable in offshore construction, and the Research Council of Norway recently awarded Griff Aviation a two million dollar (USD) grant for a joint-industry research project into drone operations at sea.
  • Dutch tug operator Kotug is testing drone assistance in connecting a towline to an assisted vessel.

By all accounts, expect 2018 to continue this trend of inter­connecting aviation and shipping. However, stakeholders should be cognizant of the jurisdictional limits and legal framework that governs combined aviation and marine operations.

Innovative Collaboration

The marine sector can also expect industry collaboration to spur more innovation to better assist clients. For example, “tech incubators” will continue to grow in popularity in 2018. To illustrate, Wärtsilä recently launched Digital Acceleration Centers in Helsinki and Singapore to serve as incubators for new digital ideas. SUNY Maritime College formed a collaborative incubator, the Maritime Global Technologies Innovation Center, to foster maritime technological develop­ments. CMA CGM Group created a Marseilles-based startup incubator, Ze Box. And, Rolls-Royce recently opened an autonomous ship “Research & Development Centre.”

Additionally, building on the recent completion of block­chain-based paperless bills of lading between Wave Ltd. and ZIM, interest in blockchain technology will likely grow, a technology on which our Firm recently published a com­prehensive article, Blockchain: Staying Ahead of Tomorrow. More recently, freight forwarder Agility agreed to collabo­rate with Maersk and IBM on a blockchain platform, a major development in the expansion of blockchain technology in the container supply chain space. Look for more collab­oration on emerging technologies in 2018 in blockchain development and other shared endeavors.


Even with technological advances, change is not always swift in the traditionally conservative maritime industry. As new opportunities develop, there will be sectors that remain reluctant to adapt. For others, the fourth industrial revolution is a harbinger of things to come, and oppor­tunities for innovation may align with their business phi­losophy. One size, however, does not fit all, and as with all maritime operations, stake­holders must independently evaluate risk and reward.

Overall, the key to pro­gression of technological advances in the maritime market will require the alignment of three factors: 1) developers providing the technology, 2) industry interest in acquiring the tech­nology, and 3) a receptive regulatory climate and legal framework that allows the technology to flourish. Without all three evolving in con­cert, advanced automation in the marine sector will stall. Stakeholders should consider how they can incorporate the foregoing technological advancements, among others beyond the purview of this article, into their respective busi­ness enterprises. Commercial operators looking to develop and operate Smart Ships should consult with counsel to assist in navigating the current regulatory framework and legally integrating new technologies into their operations.

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